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Life with Dogs and Cats

Monday, December 19, 2011

Lights! Camera! Jasper!

The script my daughter handed me was for her thesis film. A senior at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, Corinne was getting ready to direct her final project, a short movie titled Emily's Revolution. As I read through it, I noticed that one of the characters was described by another as a “big goofball.”

The “big goofball” was a dog named Jake.

“Were you thinking of casting one of our dogs for the part of Jake?” I asked her. She nodded. “Jasper?” “It’s who I had in mind when I wrote it.”

And thus Jasper’s film career began.

My big goofball was in two scenes. In one, he was required to lay on a bed and snuggle with an actor playing the part of his owner, Zach. That sounded pretty easy for Jasper the Dude, the comfort hound.

In the other scene, Jasper had to run away from me toward Emily, the main character, who would be sitting under a tree in a park. He was to stay near her for a bit, and then come when called by Zach. After Zach puts Jasper’s leash on, the dog was to hang around with the two actors as they conversed.


Jasper, don’t look at the squirrels. Don’t look at me. Run away from me toward somebody who is sitting on the ground. Whom you’ve just met. Don’t knock her over. Look like you have a relationship with your actor owner. Come when called by him. Do this all off leash. In a public park.


Could I do it? Could Jasper do it? The dog plays a significant role in the story, because he’s the one who introduces the two main characters to each other. 

In Corinne’s previous films, I served as transportation coordinator, craft services, project photographer and even did the slate once, so I was happy to help out. But I sure didn’t want to be responsible for screwing up a scene, the movie, my daughter’s senior thesis, her life!...if Jasper couldn’t deliver.

I said we’d do it.

Let the training begin.

Jasper is a very well-behaved dog. At a little over two years old, he’s still, well, a big goofball. But he’s very food motivated. Very. And will do anything for a treat. Actually, he’ll try anything for a treat.

But I’ve trained him to come to me, to stay by me. To not run away from me. And he was actually very good at it. Now I had to teach him to run toward someone that wasn’t me, wasn’t a family member, wasn’t anyone he really knew.

I began by having Brian and I stand about ten feet apart, and as one of us called Jasper, the other would say the command, “Go greet!” If he ran to person, that person would give him a treat. Pretty quickly, my food-motivated pup learned to go to Brian when I said “Go greet!” or run to me when Brian said it--without either of us actually calling Jasper by name.

That meant he understood the concept.

From then on, we practiced and expanded the action. Because dogs have a very narrow interpretation of what is expected of them. That’s why Fido sits so nicely when you’re at home in the kitchen, but seems to have no clue when you ask him to do the same thing outside--or at the pet store. So you have to make sure little Fluffy fully gets what you want her to do, and then slowly expand the circumstances where you want her to do it.

For Jasper, it went something like this:
First, we added distance, sending Jasper back and forth between Brian and I until we were dozens of feet away.

When he did that consistently, I added a hand signal along with the command. I wasn't sure if I would be able to speak the command out loud during the filming. This came in handy (hah!) later when I used the signal to indicate whom Jasper should run toward.

After a while, it was only me doing the sending, only me who said the “Go greet!” command--and it was Brian who gave Jasper the treats.

When Jasper had that down, I started trying it with other people. Jasper was quick to understand the other steps, but this took several tries. He was confused that Brian wasn’t there and Corinne was, but when he realized she had the treats, he figured it out.

Up until this point, “Go greet!” meant Jasper was to run toward a person who was standing. So now we changed it to greet someone sitting on the ground. Corinne volunteered for this, and it was good she did, because she got to experience what it was like to have a 60-pound dog moose galumphing straight toward her--which can be somewhat scary when you’re upright, but downright daunting when you’re seated on the ground with your back to a tree. This helped later when she explained to the actress playing Emily, what to expect in that scene. (For the record, Corinne said it was best not to look at the dog coming at you.)

From this point on, we simply practiced. We would do it at different times, in different locations in the yard, with different people--and with more people standing around, so Jasper had to figure out which was the person he had to greet. It was always the person sitting by the tree. And that person always gave Jasper treats.

While we were training Jasper, the other dogs were encouraged to participate as well, so soon Lilah knew what “Go greet!” meant as well. Tucker figured it out, too, but he’s been so ball-obsessed recently that if the activity didn’t involve a small, chase-able orb, it wasn’t worth doing.

Over the course of several weeks, Jasper honed his trick, getting it near perfect before the first weekend of shooting began. At that point, we had a houseful of cast and crew. My home became the film’s Inn of Choice, with a gaffer sleeping in the living room, actors in each of the bedrooms, and a cinematographer, several grips and a sound person on couches and air mattresses in the finished basement.

This was great for Jasper and Emma (the actress playing Emily), as they were able to practice the greeting while Emma was staying at our house.  And the dog also spent some bonding time with Patrick, the actor playing Zach.

We shot Jasper’s greeting scene that first weekend, on Sunday. I arrived early with our four-legged star so he could walk around, sniff what needed to be sniffed, and get familiar with his environment. After awhile, I gave treats to Patrick/Zach and handed Jasper’s leash to him so they could get comfortable walking with each other. Suspecting that not everyone was a fan of cooked chicken bits rolling around in pockets, I had brought freeze-dried liver for the actors to use with Jasper. I taught Patrick to give the dog treats when Jasper looked at his face, to make sure Jasper didn’t look at Patrick's pockets or hands during filming.

Patrick/Zach and Jasper bonding. Notice Jasper is looking at Patrick's face.

Corinne took some time to talk to her DP (director of photography or cinematographer), about what she wanted from the scene. She prepped the actors, describing their movements as well. Jasper and I were told where to stand and what to do. And then we were ready to do a run through.

Corinne reviewing the scene with the actors: Jasper, Patrick and Emma.

Three actors: Patrick, Jasper and Emma.

Emma sitting by the tree, with Jasper's treat hidden behind her hands.

I admit I was a bit nervous about Jasper's performance. He had the action down pat--at home. But now we were at the park. It would be the first time ever I had him off leash anywhere but in the dog park or a fenced-in back yard. There were squirrels, people walking their dogs, and a slew of crew members milling around with equipment. And he had to do a very specific thing, ignoring all that.

Out of camera range, I knelt down next to Jasper and unhooked his leash. I held tight to his collar and whispered in his soft ear. "We're going to Go Greet! Are you ready to Go Greet?" I motioned to Emma who was in place, sitting by the tree, with a piece of dried liver balanced on her knee and hidden by her hand.

Corinne gave me the cue: "Whenever you're ready." 

"Jasper, Go Greet!"

Jasper ran right to Emma, just like we practiced so many times in our yard. Patrick called him, and though Jasper looked up, he felt that there was a greater chance of treats from Emma, so he didn't really respond to Patrick. Jasper's name in the film is Jake, so Patrick tried calling, "Jake, Come!" but that didn't work either. 

After another rehearsal, with a perfect trot to Emma and a not-so-perfect response to "Jake, Come!" Corinne told Patrick to simply work with Jasper's response. He was to walk toward Jasper as he called for Jake. If Jasper came toward him, Patrick would stop and put the leash on. If the dog stayed by Emma, Patrick was to walk up to her and attach the leash when he got there.

In other words, in addition to knowing their lines, showing the right emotion, remembering where to walk and where to stop, the actors had to be aware of where Jasper was at any given moment, and respond to him in that moment.

One more practice, and it worked like a charm, with Patrick and Jasper connecting with ease. Time to do it for real, for the camera; we didn't want Jasper to get bored with the repeated activity.

"Sound rolling."
"Camera rolling."
"Scene three apple, take one."

"Jasper, Go Greet!"

And then I turned away. I looked down at the ground and made myself small and inconspicuous. I didn't want Jasper to look at me, to get distracted by me, to even remember that I was there. I looked up at the end of the scene, as Patrick crouched down by a seated Jasper and they watched Emma walk away. 


He did it!  I was so proud! What a good dog!

And then we had to do it again. And again. And again. And then from a closer angle. And then a different angle. Over and over. I lost track of how many times I told Jasper to Go Greet. Yet he hit his mark every time. Sometimes he came when called; other times he waited for Patrick to come to him. He wasn't distracted, and stayed quite comfortable on the leash, never pulling--sometimes sitting, sometimes standing quietly by his "owner's" side.

We had to stop now and again, between takes. Noisy helicopters and small planes flew over, since we were near a small airport. At one point we had to wait for nearly a half hour as Santa visited the local neighborhood in a firetruck with sirens that seemed to go on forever. And a few times, we waited while people walked nearby with their dogs; I didn't want Jasper to be off leash with that kind of distraction. Filming would begin again when the dog was out of eye, ear and nose reach.

When we got to some of the closer shots, I switched out the liver for chicken. It was less crunchable, and Jasper would take the treat in one gulp, looking less like he was eating something.

I have very few pictures of Jasper during the actual filming. I was busy being invisible. I wasn't even able to see him perform, for the most part. However, I did manage to snap a few shots now and again.

Patrick and Jasper

The crew taking a break. Craft services (that would be me) provided snacks and hot drinks for cast and crew. Jasper had his own water bowl, and of course, chicken bits and freeze-dried liver.

Jasper checking out crew member Alex, who was napping on the ground while a new shot was being set up. The crew was at the park by 7 AM that day.

Guillaume, our gaffer, and Emma, taking a moment to pet the canine star.
Ryan, our sound guy, getting sniffs and wags from Jasper.

Jasper and Patrick getting ready for a closer shot. At this point, Jasper wasn't required to run to Emma anymore; they were shooting a close up after he was leashed.

Another view of Jasper and Patrick, waiting for "Action!"

This is the shot that made me the most nervous. Patrick and Jasper are walking in the background and Patrick lets Jasper off leash to run wherever he wants. I was hidden behind a tree to catch the moose as he ran by.

Jasper on the set: I'm ready for my close up.

In my next post, I'll write about Jasper's other scene. And then I'll take a look at Tucker and Lilah's  contributions as members of the crew.

NOTE: Corinne is still looking for funding to help pay for Emily's Revolution. Fans of my blog, it would be awesome if you would like to contribute to the cause. Every little bit helps. It's easy to support her; just go to her Kickstarter page, and donate online. And thank you!

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